Portland, Maine–a quaint city by the ocean with a population of just under 70,000 people. Like other cities, every avenue in Portland is unique. Some are home to stunning new apartment buildings and tall skyscrapers, while others contain some of Maine’s best restaurants and bars. There’s an ice rink at the intersection of Spring Street and Cross Street, home to the Maine Mariners, one of Portland’s three professional sports teams, and on Myrtle Street, the famous Merrill Street Auditorium. Portland is known for its character and its charm, but what you’ll find at Deering Oaks Park is much darker than the allure Portland is famous for.
Roughly one hundred tents are set up in the park. These tents are home to the hundreds of homeless individuals who weren’t lucky enough to find space in Portland’s few homeless shelters. Many of these individuals are asylum seekers from African countries who have escaped turmoil in their home countries, causing Portland’s homeless population to skyrocket and homeless shelters to reach their capacity.
During the past couple of years, hotels in Portland have teamed up with the Maine State Housing Authority to provide shelter for these individuals. However, these arrangements have been short lived as the number of participating hotels has slowly decreased. By late April, the last of the participating hotels will have to kick out their lodgers due to complaints from the community, leaving them with nowhere to go but the streets. Many of these hotels, including Comfort Inn and Days Inn, eagerly joined the partnership in order to make up for revenue they lost during the pandemic. However, Portland municipal leaders are putting pressure on these hotels to retract their participation, as there has been an influx of emergency calls to the hotels since they began operating as shelters, as well as a high number of complaints from concerned citizens who worry about potential crime that may come with allowing homeless asylum seekers to live in their community.
Dissuading hotels and churches from operating as shelters for the homeless won’t stop them from flocking to southern Maine cities like Portland and South Portland though. This is because
Maine has some of the most lenient federal immigration laws in the nation, which makes the state a popular destination for people who have illegally entered the country or are seeking asylum. Portland Interim City Manager Danielle West estimates that since January 1 of this year, almost a thousand asylum seekers have arrived in Maine. Many of these asylum seekers are coming from African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola; many however are coming from other U.S. states. Maine Senator Susan Collins has stepped up and requested that the federal Department of Health and Human Services put a halt on the transportation of asylum seekers to Maine, but this hasn’t stopped them from continuing to arrive in droves.
South Portland is facing a similar dilemma, and City Manager Scott Morrelli acknowledges that there is an issue with how the city is handling the issue of homelessness. “Our current zoning and license ordinances really are insufficient, or don’t deal with the issue of shelters, in particular homeless shelters,” Morrelli said at a board meeting on January 24. One of the solutions being considered by the South Portland City Council is to provide city-owned buildings to nonprofits with intentions of building more shelters. “The building cost is what most non-profits will struggle with,” said South Portland District Three Council Member Misha Pride.
Meanwhile, in Portland, a shelter with approximately 208 beds, called the Homeless Service Center (HSC), opened in March 2023. The shelter provides meals and beds, along with medical, dental, and psychiatric care. “Every day, we’re seeing more people arrive in the city of Portland who need housing, who need shelter, and who need services,” said Portland Mayor Kate Snyder at the shelter’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. She also mentioned how it will take numerous shelters like HSC to aid all of the individuals in need of housing. “We know that these 208 beds will not serve everybody who’s in need.”
Getting people off the street will be a community effort and it is a job that needs to happen sooner than later, as Portland law is slowly beginning to prohibit homeless people from camping on public lands like Deering Oaks Park. In June 2022, West announced that “unauthorized campsites on public property may have significant public health and safety consequences, and so enforcement of various ordinances is a necessary preventative tool.” If Portland intends to clean up the city by eliminating homeless encampments from its streets and parks, it cannot simply ignore the issue that is causing people to end up in these circumstances. Maintaining Portland’s beauty and charm won’t happen overnight; it will happen when officials and community members alike decide to reach out a helping hand to their neighbors in need.